Sally Belfrage, who died in London earlier this year, was the author of four previous books of eyewitness history. Her account of the 1960s struggle for civil rights in Mississippi, Freedom Summer, has become a set book at American universities; and her book The Crack: A Belfast Year, about working class life in the sectarian communities of Belfast, has been described as eone of the most perceptive books ever written about that distressful country'.
My Daddy, the Commie rebel
When I was a child I wanted to be famous; by adolescence I yearned to be invisible. In the Fifties it was every American's duty to blend in, but other people seemed to have so much less trouble at it. My parents were foreigners and got married a lot, they went in for weird food and funny clothes. My mother was a mere English eccentric, but my father was a Red and so in trouble all the time, if not in jail.
The eeMcCarthy era' made havoc for its victims: people lost their jobs, friends, homes, lives. My family lost our country. To a child growing up at the wrong end of it all n being taught at school the platitudes of American custom and constitution, and then going home to the realities of police power n there were three choices: accept one version, accept the other, or take on both and split in two. Schizophrenia can be kid stuff.
How can I associate my gentle father with the mob's hatred and the newspapers' vilification and the government's threats? Representative Harold Velde (chairman of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, HUAC), Senator Joseph McCarthy, and his investigating committee's chief counsel, Mr Roy Cohn, say they are defending freedom against these rats who are part of a plot to enslave the world; Daddy says he is defending freedom. They say that he and his kind use eetreachery, deceit, infiltration, terrorism and any other means deemed necessary' and therefore don't deserve to be free; he says he loves America and they are hypocrites, betrayers of Jefferson and the Bill of Rights, not to mention Roosevelt's New Deal. They say New Deal, big deal, Daddy is a revolutionary who would liquidate those who disagree with his beliefs; he says they are the descendants of revolutionaries who fought for his right to disagree with their beliefs.
There is nobody who can remotely share any of these concerns with me. There is nobody around who even thinks about anything like that. Better than thinking about it anyway is just to keep the head down and work on being invisible.
Who says you have to be only one person, anyway? After all, I'm not just the daughter of a Red and a weird Englishwoman, I'm also a real American teenager. That is, if I can just bring it off. It's hard work keeping everything separate.
Soon after Daddy's appearance before HUAC in May 1953 he is summoned to appear before the McCarthy Committee, where chief counsel Roy Cohn puts it to him: eeNow, between 1937 and 1953, that is, today, have you continuously been a member of the Communist Party?' Daddy has the nerve to throw Christ at him: eeMr Cohn, eThou sayest it' is a famous answer to a similar trick question.'
By what right, asks Senator Stuart Symington, has he invoked the Fifth Amendment (the constitutional right not to testify against oneself)? eeI cherish the Bill of Rights,' my father says. eeIts Fifth Amendment was adopted for the protection of the innocent as well as the guilty. I am invoking it as such.' eeDo you think you are completely innocent?' asks the senator.
eeThat is correct,' says Daddy.
The New York Times printed Daddy's photograph n a face in pain, dejected, rejected n with this underneath: eeWill not answer: Cedric Belfrage, British editor of an American magazine, who refused to tell Senators whether he had ever been a spy working against the US.'
My pity and sorrow at the sadness in the father's face were overcome by my shame. What would any reader infer from such a caption? Everyone knew that those who took the Fifth were guilty. The guilty were those the FBI was after: all the way to those on Death Row.
Cedric Belfrage was detained at West Street Jail in New York City while Sally was dating Dan, her army cadet boyfriend.
My fate, the West Point cadet
Visiting Dan every weekend becomes a habit long before I have to make a choice between going to West Point or West Street Jail, the compass points of my different lives. But I have been so successful in keeping myself apart from myself that most of the time they simply do not overlap. At the moment, I have found the necessary ingredients for the invisibility scheme, and it's full steam ahead. I'm going to pretend away everything else and be an all-American girl. An AAG.
True, for once they look like me. Every Saturday morning at ten we pile into the bus at Port Authority for the two-hour journey up the Hudson Valley: fifty freckled, snub-nosed females, a whole freightload of Miss Rheingolds. Garment bags stuffed with gowns of tulle and taffeta for the Saturday night hop overflow the luggage racks.
There they go, breathing as one, the extraordinary youths of the United States Military Academy Cadet Corps, marching brass-banded, unconquerably proud and upright in their dress grey uniforms. Dan is just another tin toy man, precision machine-tooled as the gun propped on his shoulder at just the tilt of every other gun on every other shoulder, his trouser legs indistinguishable from 4,798 other trouser legs, down to the very creases. And yet he's not diminished by the numbers: my pride in him swells to include them all, I see humanity en masse but neat, hundreds of Dans in rows, all moving perfectly to the very soul of the music. That military beat: its soaring sense of purpose could march me to hell. The pain in my breast I attribute to patriotism, God, and first love. He's only eighteen, but this place has made him a man.
And me? What has it made me? Nothing different, really. It's just that half of me is in mothballs up here. After I have finally gotten around to mentioning the unmentionable, this other half and Dan do not refer to it. He understands instantly that we have to ignore all that, forget about it completely, and anyway is probably too horrified to do anything else. Cleaning up my politics by brushing them under the rug is easy: school teaches the regular kind, with help from the media. Anyway, AAGs aren't political. And I am playing my role all the way, complete with costume and accessories, every last item borrowed from friends for the occasion to help me get in character. He understands perfectly: it wouldn't do to find ourselves in the wrong play, some chintzy horror show or tawdry melodrama.
At school, like other American kids, we have studied and memorised chunks of the Declaration of Independence the Preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address. We are taught the same legends and mottoes of America's greatness. Don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes] Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable] Give me liberty or give me death] I have not yet begun to fight] Don't give up the ship] Go west, young man] The only thing we have to fear is fear itself]
Daddy thinks it's pretty goofy to reduce the whole of history to these relatively recent provincial matters, but you can see that his love for all the We-the-People stuff is as strong as anyone's. How the Red-baiters have twisted it all to use against him] Everything is split, cracked apart. I absorb everyone's myths, believe them all. I am the personal embodiment of the Cold War, and if I can't keep it cold, I'll be destroyed.
My mind feels like a zoo, full of savage animals clawing and shrieking to get at one another. They will eat each other up unless I keep on mending fences. But between Dan and my father, I am the fence. Whenever I am with one of them, I am ashamed of the other.
'Unamerican Activities, A Memoir of the Fifties' is published by Andre Deutsch tomorrow at pounds 14.99. There will be an evening of readings to commemorate Sally Belfrage's writings on Wednesday 7 September at Conway Hall, London WC1, at 8.15pm.
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